What is White Noise and Why Does It Help Us Sleep?

White noise is a fuzzy and simple blur of sound containing all frequencies of sound but in a blended form that sounds like a neutral hum or hiss. White noise machines were created to solve the problem that light sleepers encounter where small or large new sounds startle them out of sleep or keep them from falling asleep. The machine produces a consistent, monotonous sound that might be louder than the sounds that disrupt your sleep, but because it is constant, it drowns out the surprise noises and makes it easier to stay in sleep mode.

Not every sleeper needs or appreciates white noise. But for a significant number of people, white noise provides valuable assistance in falling asleep in noisy environments and staying asleep. Studies performed in hospitals, where ambient noise can be disruptive, and with young sleepers like babies, show that white noise machines are a valuable option to try for those who find themselves struggling to sleep. 

Nonetheless, there are at least two minor risks in using a white noise machine. For those who have chronic insomnia or other sleep challenges, sleeping with a white noise machine can create an association and thus a dependency. You may be fine with this, but you’ll want to make sure you always have access to your white noise if you want to be able to sleep. For those who aren’t suffering badly from insomnia, it’d probably be good to vary it up, not using the white noise when you are sleepiest and can confidently get a good night’s sleep without the machine. 

Another potential concern is playing white noise too loud, which at least one study has linked to ringing ears. As with any loud sounds, they can damage your ears, but the research doesn’t bear out any adverse effects of using white noise machines at most normal volumes. 

White noise
White noise machines create a constant, monotonous sound

How White Noise Can Help You Sleep Better

White noise for sleep essentially is like a blanket of snow on your yard. Underneath the uniform blanket of white noise, there may be other, fast noises of various intensities (like blades of grass and weeds), but you can’t “see” any of them because the overall, consistent hum drowns them out.

Many people are surprised to learn they sleep well even with a relatively loud white noise machine. Their ears learn to ignore the total consistency of white noise, and they are essentially blocked from hearing other, small and short-term noises that might otherwise rouse them. 

While the results of studies point to a benefit, white noise for sleep depends on preferences and needs, and many of us have particular sensitivities to different kinds of sounds. As a result, various noise styles or “colors” have been developed to get at the things that actually help us sleep. In the end, the sound that makes you relax may be doing something different from a sound that blocks out other sounds, but both might result in you falling asleep better.

White Noise vs. Nature Sounds

While white noise for sleep has shown positive results, everyone responds to it slightly differently. As a result, some people have experimented with falling asleep to other sounds, like nature sounds. 

Nature sounds are recorded to have variation but not wild variation – rather than all of a sudden having a loud, snuffling bear stomp into the “scene,” they focus on babbling brooks, distant birds, swishing of leaves. By creating a “scene” of peace and calm, the listener relaxes, and by avoiding startling sounds, nature sounds can play during sleep without making a lot of interruption.

However, whether white noise or nature sounds will work best for you is truly a personal preference. Some people will occasionally be startled awake even by minimal variations in the nature sounds. In contrast, others have sensitivities to part of the white noise that make it so annoying to listen that they can’t fall asleep. You’ll have to experiment to find what works for you. 

Sleep nature sounds
Nature sounds focus on small variations to produce a peaceful “scene”

What Are Pink, Brown, and Black Noises?

Other forms of noise you might want to experiment with using videos or clips. One type of noise named is pink noise, a white noise that focuses on bass overtones, making it a deeper sound that many people find more soothing than traditional white noise.

Brown noise is even more profound than pink noise, sounding like thunder or a low roar. Both pink and brown noise haven’t been researched as thoroughly as white noise, but anecdotally people report that they prefer these types of noise for sleeping.

Black noise is considered pure silence, no noise at all; sleeping in silence may be the ideal for many people, but it is prone to the same concerns of hearing sounds outside your home and outside your control that disturb the peace. 

Other Tips to Help You Sleep Better

  • It bears noting that, while many people like to check their phones or other electronics right before bed or when they cannot sleep, the light emitted by these devices does us no favors in falling asleep. Try reading a book or listening to music very quietly instead if you need a distraction during the falling-asleep process.
  • Exercise during the day and lots of activity can help get to the right sleepiness level by bedtime.
  • Many people find it helpful to avoid eating a large meal or consuming alcohol or caffeine during the hours before trying to sleep.
  • If you typically vary your sleep time, try to sleep at a similar time and wake at a similar time each day; schedules have been shown to help some people sleep more and more consistently. 
  • Make sure you have a comfortable, supportive mattress that doesn’t get in the way of great sleep.
  • Ritualize the time before bed, with a particular routine and lower light than usual, cueing your mind to relax and your body to prepare for sleep. The things you do during the routine is less important; what matters is that they help you relax or calm down and that you do them at the same time in the same order.